Obama's Reckless Grandstanding

October 4, 2013 Topic: Politics Region: United States

Obama's Reckless Grandstanding

By failing to build domestic support for his policies, the president laid the groundwork for the present crisis.


America’s mainstream media is presenting a near-consensus view that House Republicans, and especially Tea Party radicals, bear sole responsibility for this week’s partial shutdown of the U.S. federal government. This remarkably simplistic perspective ignores the realities of President Barack Obama’s approach to governance since he took office. Mr. Obama and Congressional Democrats merit at least equal blame for the shutdown—and the longer it endures, the more likely it is that Americans will draw the same conclusion.

The conventional wisdom is that Republican opponents of Obamacare are fighting a lost cause. Since Democrats control the White House and the Senate, this argument goes, they cannot hope to succeed in defunding the health care law. In reality, however, neither the President nor Congressional Democrats can force House Republicans to fund specific programs—and if Republicans can remain unified, they need not capitulate.


Moreover, while it is natural that the media and the public should initially focus on Mr. Obama’s Republican foes—no one likes the shutdown’s maddening and expensive collateral damage—their attention is sure to broaden over time. Voters will begin to ask themselves why the President and Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid are unable to find a compromise and whether they are really doing everything possible to resolve the crisis or, alternatively, whether they are primarily focused on scoring political points at the expense of small businesses, cancer patients, and vacationers. The more flexibility Republicans are prepared to demonstrate, the more Mr. Obama’s “my way or the highway” rhetoric will sink into the minds of the American people.

Public expectations will play a key role in this process. By tradition, and for some very practical reasons, it is presidents whom Americans hold accountable for governing the country. Welfare reform was former President Bill Clinton’s legacy; no one attributes it to the 104th Congress. Americans likewise assign credit or blame to presidents for the state of the U.S. economy. However foolish some House Republicans may seem at this moment, their tactical errors will not relieve President Obama of ultimate responsibility for the consequences of this crisis in the eyes of many voters, particularly if the other side appears prepared to deal. If Mr. Obama offered modest and face-saving concessions, Speaker John Boehner and moderate House Republicans would probably work with him to bring the whole affair to a quick and relatively painless end.

If that does not happen, however, Americans will also soon begin to consider how and why our government came to be in this situation in the first place—something that does not reflect well on the President’s leadership. As Politico’s Todd Purdrum has compellingly argued, Mr. Obama is facing the natural and predictable consequences of his decision to force transformative health care legislation without bipartisan support and using every possible parliamentary maneuver after the Democrats lost their filibuster-proof majority in the Senate following voter rejection of the bill in a special election after the death of Senator Ted Kennedy in the very liberal state of Massachusetts. The President and his supporters also used every possible argument without particularly caring whether their case stood up over time—though they insisted before the law’s passage that it was not a tax, they happily embraced the Supreme Court’s decision that the law fell within the Congressional authority to tax. That angry Republicans legislators should show little restraint in response may be tactically unwise but should not be surprising to anyone. As Purdum reports, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel “begged” Obama to compromise with Republicans to avoid retribution down the road.

The biggest problem for President Obama is that his neoimperial approach to healthcare reform did not take place in isolation. It has its parallels in many other sectors of American life, including many in which Mr. Obama could get no Congressional support at all and has elected to rule by executive order. Environmental Protection Agency efforts to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from power plants in the wake of the White House’s failure to pass climate-change legislation provide one example; selective enforcement of immigration laws are another. In each of these cases, the president is also trying to remake society to reflect his preferences without building broadly based support—meaning that the moves are not only politically provocative, but fundamentally unsustainable in a two-party political system with periodic changes in leadership.

Taking into account that the President’s goals are in fact more radical than those of Congressional Republicans—he is the one who is trying to transform American society without a clear public mandate—this is an especially short-sighted approach. After all, his relentless drive to change the United States into a populist social democracy, with appropriately redistributive tax policies (of which the health care plan is in essence a component), is the ultimate source of the passion that fires many Republicans. And no successor in either party is likely to share President Obama’s priorities or to fight with equal energy to preserve his varied legacy. His most controversial steps will likely prove the most vulnerable.

Whatever the eventual fate of the Affordable Care Act, we hope that Mr. Obama and the Republicans and Democrats in Congress will find a reasonable compromise to put the federal government back to work soon. We especially hope that they will cooperate to avoid creating even the appearance of a possible debt default, which could have unpredictable and potentially devastating impacts on the economy and on the country’s international effectiveness and standing. No political benefit to any individual or party would count for anything by comparison.

Most of all, however, President Obama should remember a fundamental warning in George Washington’s Farewell Address. Speaking to his new nation for the last time, America’s first President said that “the habits of thinking in a free country should inspire caution in those entrusted with its administration, to confine themselves within their respective constitutional spheres, avoiding in the exercise of the powers of one department to encroach upon another. The spirit of encroachment tends to consolidate the powers of all the departments in one, and thus to create, whatever the form of government, a real despotism.” While all sides would do well to heed Washington’s similarly strong advice about “the baneful effects of the spirit of party,” Mr. Obama in particular needs to stop trying to substitute regulations for laws and to act like the leader of one branch of government rather than a wise and benevolent autocrat. Yet if he ignored his own chief of staff on what appears to have been one of his highest priorities in office, the President likely has little time for the parting thoughts of our republic’s greatest founding father.

Dimitri K. Simes is president of the Center for the National Interest. Paul J. Saunders is executive director of the Center for the National Interest. He served in the State Department from 2003 to 2005.